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Protesting the Keystone XL pipeline at the White House: A recall on Obama's energy record?

Going into Sunday’s action outside the White House to protest the Keystone XL pipeline, two things were unclear: how many people will it take to encircle the White House and will enough people turn out to answer that question? The answers are, fewer than 10,000 and yes.

The number of people at the demonstration far exceeded everyone’s expectations. One explanation could be that the event represented more than just a pressure point on the Keystone XL pipeline; it may have also offered an opportunity – exactly one year before the 2012 election – to vent the collective disappointment with President Obama’s environmental record.

Clearly the proposed pipeline, which would traverse the country from Montana all the way down to the Gulf Coast of Texas, has hit a nerve within the environmental and climate community. But beyond the environmental and climate stakes involved in this project, there are other forces at work that have elevated the Keystone XL pipeline to priority issue number one for so many activists and environmental leaders.

Less hope, more audacity

In many ways, the environmental agenda of candidate Obama has been stifled by partisan politics and the administration’s calculation to court constituencies that have been consistently hostile to climate legislation and environmental regulations. As a result, his environmental record has been less than stellar. In the case of the Keystone XL pipeline, Obama has the sole authority to decide whether the projected is approved. In other words, this is the president’s opportunity to make good on his campaign promise to protect the environment and hold big polluters accountable – a commitment that rallied large numbers of environmentally minded youth to register their peers to vote, knock on doors and flood their social media networks for candidate Obama.

We voted for change, not climate change

While the message at the rally that preceded the encircle action was emphatically clear – Obama, Stop the Keystone XL Pipeline, the disappointment at his lack of leadership on a host of environmental issues circulated through the crowd on pamphlets and homemade signs. One glossy postcard that was handed to me focused a campaign to get solar panels back on the White House – a commitment the Obama administration made in October 2010 and still hasn’t fulfilled. A woman next to me at the rally from New York State held a cardboard sign that read, “No Fracking.”

In many ways, it appears that the throngs of people that came to Washington, D.C., from all over the country see the proposed pipeline as the final exam for the Obama administration, which has failed so many environmental tests. A passing grade on the final exam could redeem some of the environmental cred that Obama has lost and restore a large part of his base in time for the 2012 election. But the bigger question is what approving the pipeline will do to his prospects for a second term. Maybe the fallout won’t hurt him.

But at the end of the day, our elected officials need to remember the decisions that are made about the energy we use today have implications far beyond the short timeline of a presidency. The climate doesn’t care about approval ratings.